Ira Dworkin: In the Name of Lumumba

Today is the 57th anniversary of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s independence as a nation, first declared in a legendary speech by the first prime minister Patrice Lumumba on June 30, 1960. Guest blogger Ira Dworkin, author of Congo Love Song: African American Culture and the Crisis of the Colonial State, speaks to the legacy of Patrice Lumumba, his brilliant speech, and the aftermath in both the Democratic Republic of Congo and the United States. 

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Dworkin: Congo Love SongAs the Democratic Republic of Congo marks the 57th anniversary of its independence, the country continues to suffer political violence as part of seemingly unending crisis. The current president Joseph Kabila, who succeeded his father Laurent Kabila in 2001, refused to relinquish power after the end of his elected term last year: “Democracy was assassinated here when Patrice Lumumba was assassinated. And who brought democracy back to this country? We are the ones who did that after pushing out the [Mobutu] dictatorship in 1997.” Kabila’s proprietary claim to the mantle of the country’s first prime minister essentially erases the work of the country’s vibrant opposition. He can make this claim because it is impossible to overstate the significance of the assassination or the length of colonialism’s complicated shadow. That shadow is not confined to the Congo. As the United States faces its own crisis of transparent and representative governance, Lumumba’s vision and the contributions of those who labor in his name continue to animate what Robin Kelley terms “black radical imagination.”

June 30, 1960, was the occasion for Lumumba’s brilliant independence day speech, delivered in Kinshasa to the face of Belgian King Baudouin, insisting that neither the terrors of the colonial regime nor the heroic struggles of the Congolese people be ignored for the sake of diplomatic niceties. Malcolm X would later cite the speech at the June 28, 1964, founding rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity: “he told the king of Belgium, ‘Man, you may let us free, you may have given us our independence, but we can never forget these scars.’” In the United States, the history of Lumumba is remembered by the many who carry not only his vision of liberation but also his name. Three days after that same OAAU rally, Malcolm and Betty Shabazz named their newborn daughter Gamilah Lumumba Shabazz in honor of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and in memory of Lumumba, “the greatest black man who ever walked the African continent.”

Malcolm’s daughter shares her name with many, including the late Chokwe Lumumba, a brilliant activist with the Republic of New Afrika, who, since the 1960s, sought self-determination for African Americans in the area that is currently the southeastern United States; he served as mayor of Jackson, the state capital of Mississippi and its largest city, from July 1, 2013, until his untimely death on February 25, 2014. This year, on July 3, his son, attorney and Malcolm X Grassroots Movement activist Chokwe Antar Lumumba, will be inaugurated as mayor of Jackson, which he promises to make “the most radical city on the planet.” More than fifty years ago, Malcolm planned to visit Jackson for a Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party rally with Fannie Lou Hamer. After Malcolm’s New York home was bombed in the early morning hours of February 14, 1965, he cancelled that February 19 trip; on February 21, he was assassinated.

Malcolm famously located Mississippi on the same map as the Congo–“You can’t understand what is going on in Mississippi if you don’t understand what is going on in the Congo”. His prescient transnational commitments are affirmed in hip hop artist David Banner’s “Evil Knievil” (a 2014 song included as a bonus track on some digital versions of his long-awaited latest album, The God Box, which dropped on Malcolm X’s birthday). Banner, who grew up in Jackson, places the longer history of Belgian colonialism alongside ignored histories of racist violence in the United States including the bombings of African American neighborhoods in Tulsa in 1921 and Philadelphia in 1985, and racist police practices in New York.

Artists like Banner insure that Patrice Lumumba’s name and voice to continue to ring out in their work:

“On January 17, 1961, I was beaten then tortured then murdered by guns. (Who am I?)

The firing squad, the CIA, the MI6, the Belgians were in on it. (Who am I?)

Mobutu too tried to kill the cause by killing me.

[….]

Pan African, pro-people, prolific against evil. Whether it comes through war or peace, please remember my name–it’s Patrice.”

In the video for “The Who?,” a collaboration with the superb Sa-Roc, Banner delivers this rhyme as a high school teacher and then kicks Sa-Roc out of his class for using profanity during her freestyle. Before leaving, she picks up her copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and heads to the Kilombo School where she is welcomed by the legendary Professor Griff of Public Enemy and her new (old) teacher—David Banner.

In this rich history of remembrances, Malcolm is a frequent associate who appears with Lumumba across works by a generation of African American poets including Ernest Allen, Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Nikki Giovanni, David Henderson, Ahmed Legraham Alhamisi, Larry Neal, Sterling Plumpp, and others. In hip hop, artists like X-Clan (featuring the late Professor X aka Lumumba Carson, son of longtime activist Sonny Carson), Nas, and Banner [“Malcolm X (A Song to Me)”] have invoked Lumumba’s name alongside Malcolm’s. Chokwe Antar Lumumba eulogized his father, “My father is not dead!  He lives in the people’s struggle!” These words ring out as he prepares to become mayor of Jackson. The world Malcolm X and Patrice Lumumba were building for all of their children continues among poets, musicians, and activists who embody the struggles and scars, and look to places like Jackson where activists imagine and demand justice, understanding what is at stake in Banner’s call–on behalf of Lumumba–to “please remember my name.”

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Ira Dworkin is assistant professor of English at Texas A&M University.